There’s something just a little different about some of the customers in one of Sydney’s hottest new Italian eateries.
“Once a week, a customer comes down about 6.45pm, he has a glass of wine, a bowl of pasta and reads a book,” says Flavio Carnevale, co-owner of Popolo in Rushcutters Bay. “At 7.30pm exactly, he gets up, asks us to keep the table and the tab open, and leaves. Five minutes later his wife comes in, takes the table, orders a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine, and she reads her book.”
This is one of the little oddities that come with running a traditional Italian restaurant in the heart of a modern apartment complex. Apartment residents often have a way of making their lifestyles work … well … differently. While one parent gets quality time with the kids, the other gets “me” time on his or her own.
Like this neat example of a combination of attentive parenting and self-preservation, Popolo itself is a mixture of modern and traditional. This rambunctious eatery is housed in the last remaining brick building of the former Advanx tyre factory in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney.
The rubber works’ name now lives on in the apartment complex which has Popolo literally on its collective doorstep. And it’s not a relationship that’s as cosy as it might seem or could be.
“We get a lot of calls asking us to deliver meals to the apartments,” says Flavio. “But we have to say, sorry, but no. When we opened here your residents asked the council not to let us do deliveries – I think they were worried pizza scooters would be coming and going all night. But we let people come down and pick up the takeaway food themselves.”
Popolo, the recipient of one hat in the latest Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and three hats in the Gault & Millau Yellow Guide, is evangelically committed to southern Italian cuisine, even to the point of having only wines from that region … mostly.
“People ask me for a sauvignon blanc or a shiraz but I say, I don’t have exactly that but try this …” says sommelier and co-owner Fabio Dore. “Usually, they like what I offer and enjoy learning about wines from a different region.”
“It took me a long time to persuade Fabio to even put a Chianti on the menu,” laughs Flavio, “but it’s the one wine people expect in an Italian restaurant.” Fabio rolls his eyes and shakes his head: “What’s wrong with a nice Montepulciano?”
From the porceddu – slow roasted pork shoulder, orange segments, radicchio and young Sardinian pecorino – to Schiaffoni, a Basilicata style large penne, traditional veal ragu and caramelised onion, these are familiar dishes with a southern twist.
These young successful restaurateurs know their food history as well as their flavours. “The caramelised onion was “borrowed” from French onion soup by the chefs travelling with Italian noblemen,” says Fabio. “Back in southern Italy and Sicily it became a good basic sauce for a cheap pasta dish – the poorer the family, the more onion and less meat.”
Ironically, it’s the traditional family restaurant vibe that has made Popolo so popular in this very modern setting.
“A restaurant isn’t just about how many customers you push through the door,” says Flavio. “Sure, it’s a business but we want people to feel like this is their kitchen. They can come here any time they want, have a full meal or a pizza or takeaway or just a coffee.
“It’s about how you look after the people who come here, not how many can get in. That’s why we have people who come three or four times a week.”
The apartment complex doesn’t provide all their customers – only about 25 percent – but that’s a good solid basis for the business. Many others have followed from their previous restaurants Fratelli Paradiso in Potts Point and Alimentari in Paddington.”
“We have known some of these people for years,” says Flavio. “We know their kids, know when they change jobs … they are part of our family. I know their life story, they know my life story.”
Proximity to a big development has its downside too.
“When we came here they [local residents] were very suspicious of what we were planning to do. So we have been very careful in the way we manage our customers, especially on busy night. We try to avoid having a long line-up of people outside, waiting to get in. Or if they go round to the side of the building for a smoke and chat, we gently ask them to move back round to the front where they won’t disturb anyone.
“We look after them and they look after us by coming to our restaurant. “
* Popolo, 50 McLachlan Ave, Rushcutters Bay. www.popolo.com.au. Ph 9361 6641 Tuesday to Sunday lunch from 12 and dinner from 6pm, and breakfast Saturday and Sunday from 8am.